Ok, all you serious amateur photographers still shooting with a fixed-lens camera, are you ready to make the leap to a more capable digital...

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OK, all you serious amateur photographers still shooting with a fixed-lens camera, are you ready to make the leap to a more capable digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera?

Over the past few months, we’ve covered the limitations of consumer cameras and looked at three DSLR cameras: the Canon 20D, Olympus Evolt-300 and Nikon D70s (Getting Started, April 9, May 28, June 18).

All three are well-rated, have good-quality lenses to expand the photographer’s shooting range and cost $800 to $1,500, plus $1,000 or more for lenses.

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Today, I’ll take you through my decision-making and attempt to help you figure out which of these three would be best for you.

Choosing for me: My primary photographic interests are shooting informal portraits and indoor sports with a long lens.

I don’t use a flash, so my ongoing challenge is to attain good results in low-light settings. Consequently, I need an interchangeable lens camera that can handle high ISO settings with minimum noise.

The lenses I pick must be fast (at least f/2.8), and the long ones should have built-in image stabilization to avoid dependence on a tripod.

In addition, I often crop images and need enough pixels to maintain resolution for printing large.

The Olympus Evolt-300 has enough pixels (8.1 megapixels). Its lenses are lighter than others, and all are digital. I prefer its 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the 3:2 ratio others use, and I like its built-in automatic dust-removal mechanism. Plus, the Evolt costs less.

In most situations, the Evolt’s images are sharp with good color. However, there’s significant noise at high ISO settings, and none of its lenses has built-in image stabilization. I need good performance in low light, so I can’t choose the Evolt.

In comparison, the Nikon D70s is more capable of minimizing noise at high ISO settings and generally can perform better in low-light situations.

The long 70-200-mm f/2.8 lens I would pick to go with the Nikon has vibration reduction (image stabilization) and is noted to be excellent. I’ve been shooting close-ups from far away with a similar 80-200-mm f/2.8 lens (without vibration reduction) that are quite sharp when I use a monopod.

In addition, I like the subtle colors and natural skin tones the D70 produces, which are less saturated and contrasting than the Canon images, for instance. Also, the Nikon without lenses costs less ($900) than the Canon ($1,500).

But the Nikon has 6.1 megapixels compared with the Canon’s 8.2 megapixels. Because I sometimes crop a lot and print big, I first thought those extra 2 megapixels might make a difference. In fact, the large prints I’ve made with the Nikon look great.

Unfortunately, my testing has been limited to comparing the Canon with an 18-55-mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens to the Nikon with better and faster lenses. The Canon images show some noise at high ISO settings, and I haven’t been able to see for myself whether it, with equivalent lenses, can perform better than the Nikon.

The Canon 20D reportedly is technically better than the Nikon D70, with a larger buffer, faster motor drive, better auto focus in low light, minimum noise at high ISO and more advanced image stabilization.

That said, many experts still choose the Nikon because of its performance (even in low light), the way it handles, its subtle colors and for other reasons.

Indeed, the final choice between excellent cameras may be less about technology and more about personal taste.

My own decision is based primarily on experience with these cameras and the lenses I’ve tried, and I choose the Nikon. But that may not be your choice.

Choosing for you: First, identify your photographic interests and ask yourself what you wish your compact camera could do, but it can’t. Then pick a DSLR that can best support your interests.

If you don’t mind using a flash, don’t shoot a lot of action with a telephoto lens and don’t want to spend top dollar for a camera system, you might choose the Olympus.

If you want the camera with the most advanced technology, and money isn’t an issue, choose the Canon.

If you prefer less-saturated colors and wide tonal variation, the Nikon could be your choice.

Some experts say the number and quality of available lenses are important factors in choosing a DSLR camera. In my opinion, if the lenses I want are available, it doesn’t matter how many others are.

However, you still need to know what’s available to find out if what you want is on the list (see accompanying chart).

For more information about Canon lenses, see consumer.usa.canon.com/ir/controller?act=ProductCatIndexAct&fcategoryid=111.

A complete list of Nikon lenses: www.nikonusa.com/template.php?cat=1&grp=5.

For Olympus lenses: www.olympusamerica.com/e1/sys_lens_spec.asp.

For professional reviews of these three cameras and others, go to www.dpreview.com and www.imaging-resource.com.

Choose your first DSLR camera wisely and then enjoy it!

Write Linda Knapp at lknapp@seattletimes.com; to read other Getting Started columns, go to: www.seattletimes.com/gettingstarted